Before we engage in the debate let's be clear about what the debate is. There is the "liberal" camp which believes that people from different beliefs can and should be able to be married in the Gurdwara ie- Anand Karaj. Then there is the "conservative" side which says only 2 Sikhs should be allowed to do Anand Karaj.
I don't believe either side is condemning people from mixed faiths from getting married. The debate is specifically about what is and isn't allowed as a standard for the Anand Karaj ceremony specifically. So it's not accurate to frame it as "interfaith marriages in a Gurdwara", because it is not the location that should be in debate, it is the ceremony. Having a debate about Amritdharis and non-Amritdharis getting married is a different topic. Certainly no one is saying that people from different faiths can't come to a Gurdwara and participate in seva, kirtan, langar, attend an Anand Karaj. We have 4 doors open to all. The issue is: 'is the Anand Karaj appropriate for that couple?'... whoever that couple is.
I think there are many types of marriages. There are cultural marriages, religious marriages, spiritual marriages, and then there is the Anand Karaj.
A cultural marriage is where 2 people, regardless of their beliefs, want to get married in a place where they can enjoy the company their family and friends. The particular ceremony of this marriage may be flexible but they may want something that is familiar to them and their culture. Maybe one of them doesn't care as much so that spouse will just do the ceremony the other spouse insists on. Regardless of the ceremony, the bride and groom vow to be committed to each other for the rest of their lives.
A religious marriage is where both spouses share the same religion, and vow to be married based on the specific requirements of their religion. They will then raise their kids to be in that religion as well. A common argument of why these are the best marriages, is the concern of how to raise children. Couples that are non-practicing but want to have a religious wedding, I consider to be a cultural marriage.
A spiritual marriage is where both spouses share a value for a higher power. This could be inside of a religious construct but it is guided by universal principles. They both recognize that they are spiritual beings, and there is a universal spirit.
Story by Anonymous Singh:
I was going through a divorce. I can't say that I did anything right, but at some point I asked my (then) wife to take a Hukamnama with me and let the Guru help us out of our pain. I reminded her that we walked around the Guru together. Things were too far gone for us though. She told me, "We did not get married to the Guru. We got married to each other". She refused to read from the Guru, or take any Hukamnamas with me. Although we loved each other, it wasn't enough. Our personalities differnces were difficult, but it was our different views and lifestyles that held us in conflict and constant pain. It was hard times, so I sought the councel of a dear friend of mine. Let's call him J. J is not a Sikh. He doesn't know much about Sikhism, and actually doesn't seem to like the warrior aspect, bana, and other things that make us distinct. He's very respectful though. He's a very conscious person. The first question he had for me was, "Is she still a Sikh". I tried to defend her, "No, but that shouldn't matter. I believe in universality". He replied, "But I know how important Sikhism is to you. It's the cornerstone of your life. It is what you live and breath. One thing that stood out to me at your wedding is that it was like you weren't even getting married to each other, like a normal wedding. It was like you both were getting married to God, and married to Sikhism itself. She knew that when she decided to marry you in the Sikh wedding. So if she changed, you don't have to cater to her." I was surprised that a beautiful and clear person like him would say something I thought only hardliner Sikhs would say. Then I realized, Sikhism IS the corner of marriage for me, and not having that support from my spouse doesn't work. It's not that I'm losing my universality. It's about knowing who I am, and honoring that. It's about knowing what is good for me and what is not (bibek).
The Anand Karaj is not a cultural marriage. It is not a fill-in-the-blank-religious-denomination-wedding-ceremony. It is a spiritual marriage. But not just any spiritual marriage. Calling it a "Sikh wedding" doesn't do it justice either, because its not just a conventional wedding with some Sikh ceremony around it. It is in a category of its own. It is a wedding with 2 brides, 1 groom and 1 master. The 2 brides are the couple, the groom is the God, and the Guru is the master. The couple are not marrying EACH OTHER with God's blessing, as with most marriages. They are marrying GOD, with each other, by the Guru's command. Please read those last 2 sentences again, pause, and let it sink in. This is not just rhetoric. It is a completely unique concept. The couple are not just committing to each other. They are committing to the Guru... together. Then living a life of following the Guru's advice continuously, they will live merged with and married to God. They can do this with the support, advice, and assistance of others who are devoted to the Guru ie- sangat.
The Anand Karaj is a huge commitment to the Guru. I liken it to the Amrit Sanchar. Neither are ceremonies to be taken lightly. Both are strong commitments to the Guru. This debate might largely be about whether we think the Lavan is different from other types of wedding ceremonies. Some may say it's not different; that it's just a conventional wedding in a Sikh setting.
'Victory and Virtue' is an authoritative text on the ceremonies and code of conduct of Sikh Dharma. Here is an excerpt regarding the Anand Karaj:
"The Sikh man and woman marry to help one another on the spiritual path, surely. Marriage is also a cozy haven of love and joy in this world. However, one's main support and mainstay is God and in one's ability to access that Source of Life. The gift to the Sikh is the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. Why does the couple circle the Siri Guru Granth Sahib as they commit to each round? It is not just a ritual. You are making a commitment with the Guru as witness. And as you circle the Siri Guru Granth Sahib you are reminded that the Guru is the center of your life, from which springs your life and the understanding of the journey of the soul crossing this world ocean. The Siri Guru Granth Sahib represents the core of you. The Sadh Sangat is your support system." read more
We can interpret things differently as to the role of the Guru in the ceremony... And what is 'Guru' really? Is the couple getting married to the Guru? What does that practically mean? Can you marry a scripture, something that has no biological/medical life? Or are they just getting married to each other in the presence of Guru? Let's look through the different lenses (points of view) on this matter.
The "Universal Guru" lens
We can define 'Guru' in a lot of different ways. Pavan Guru - Guru is the air. Guru is everywhere, in all things, in all religions. Everyone finds the Guru from their different religion ie- one does not have to be a Sikh to have the Guru. Guru is what brings us from darkness to light. That energy exists everywhere, and is available to everyone. Therefore, in the Anand Karaj, the Siri Guru Granth Sahib just represents universal positive energy, and the couple should commit to 'being good people', and not to the Sikh lifestyle specifically. They don't necessarily have to commit to the Siri Guru Granth Sahib as their source of that positivity. And it would be fanatical to expect them to consider the Siri Guru Granth Sahib to be their master. In addition, how can we define who is a Sikh? And therefore who can say who is worthy of doing the Anand Karaj? Who can propose to be able to make this kind of judgement besides the Guru itself? We can't draw a line, and therefore we are not going to say who can and can't do an Anand Karaj. We are going to leave it to the individuals, and what happens after that is in God's hands.
The "Siri Guru Granth Sahib is the Guru" lens
If we look at it from the lens of "The Siri Guru Granth Sahib is the Guru we are committing to", then isn't asking if we can have an interfaith Anand Karaj like asking if we can have an interfaith Amrit Sanchar? Would that make sense? If someone is committing themselves to the Guru, they, by definition, are not simultaneously committed to a different path. It doesn't make sense. Nor does it make sense for someone to participate in Anand Karaj or Amrit Sanchar who is path-neutral, or non-practicing etc. Anand Karaj is an active self-initiated life long commitment to a very specific lifestyle.
There wouldn't be any "liberal" arguments about this subject if we replaced Anand Karaj with Amrit Sanchar. We wouldn't be arguing that: "Anyone can receive Amrit, no matter their beliefs or lifestyle. We have 4 doors open to all. We are universal". In the context of Amrit Sanchar this style of argument completely loses meaning because we are Niara (exclusive in our discipline). If people want to get married in the Gurdwara for cultural reasons, we could come up with some other kind of ceremony that isn't an outright commitment to the Guru. If a couple wants an Anand Karaj it should be after being interviewed by a minister or Granthi as the Panj Piarey do with the Amrit Sanchar. Therefore we wouldn't be allowing two non-practicing Sikhs to do Anand Karaj either. This shifts the issue from just being about interfaith marriage. This issue is not about racism, ethnocentrism or rudeness. It is about guarding the sanctity and significance of commitments to the Guru.
What is the role of the Panj in an Amrit Sanchar? Are they to decide who is worthy of Amrit? I don't think so, but they are there to make it clear what vows the candidates are preparing to take. Would the Panj allow someone to receive Amrit who has stated that they are not Sikh and will not follow the Sikh lifestyle? No. They would suggest taking different vows that reflect that person's beliefs better. This shouldn't be done in an insulting or rude way. Nor is this to say that that person's path is bad or low. It's just different. So we need to allow for differences and respect them. Give them support. But at the same time not dilute our strengths, and our way. This balance can be struck. This is in fact what we do. I have personally seen several weddings that were held on the lawn outside of the Gurdwara. Siri Guru Granth Sahib was not in the center of the ceremony. A Sikh minister (Singh Sahib) officiated the wedding. It was very beautiful, and I think it reflected the couple very well. I think a similar ceremony could take place inside the Gurdwara. However, the couple shouldn't be instructed, or socially pressured to circle around the Guru and do the Lava, and make a lifelong commitment to the Siri Guru Granth Sahib unless they consciously choose to.
I can see it both ways, and to me these different lenses carry completely different implications. In order to have this debate we can't dismiss the other side. We have to understand each other, and not assume that the other side is just "some liberal idiots", or "some religious fanatics". We all have thoughts and reasons behind our opinions, and we can't even have a discussion unless we can engage in the debate maturely. I don't offer a conclusive opinion to this issue, I simply want to engage it in a thoughtful manner.
I disagree with intervening on weddings. I don't think that is helping the situation. If you are concerned that a marriage is happening that is not in alignment with Sikhi, then you should try to engage in a conversation with the couple and the Granthi beforehand. The solution is through education. If you've tried educating and dialogue and it was to no avail, then maybe activism in the form of petitioning the Gurdwara management on a policy level. I just feel that ruining someone's wedding day is not creating more love for the Guru. It is creating more division. The problem is not the couple that is getting married, in those situations. The problem is the committees and leaders of the Sangat who are not holding the standards. In other words, it is not the player's fault for making a foul, it is the referee's fault for not calling it. So don't punish the couple.
Change may take time. The fact that these weddings are happening is not an insult to God or Guru. God and Guru can't be insulted, because they don't have ego. If the sun shines on garbage, the sun does not get polluted. It might hurt your sentiments but we need to look more closely at why. If the answer is "Because it's a disrespect to the Guru", then our logic needs to be examined. Firstly, are they meaning to disrespect the Guru? Do you know what's in the heart of another person? Can the Guru be disrespected? What is my role if someone is taking a vow they are not going to keep? Why does this issue upset me? What is the best way to inspire people?
Guru Nanak taught people indirectly, and not by telling them, "You are wrong. Change to the right way. You are disrespectful". Guru ji reformed a thief indirectly by setting in motion a series of events that would change the man's life. Guru ji didn't tell him "Stop stealing. Period." Listen to the story of Bhoomi Daku. Guru Nanak taught a lesson about alcohol, not by simply saying "it's bad". Guru ji engaged in a discussion about it before hitting the point home. Listen to the story in this video. If we can understand these stories we would not be telling people they are "disrespecting Sikhi, and need to change". We would be inspiring and educating through our example and the kindness that shines from our faces. Knowing the right thing is important. But more important is how we teach it to others. This is not an issue that necessitates our picking up the sword.
- Gurujot Singh
Editor's note: This article was originally published on September 1st 2015